CATEGORY: MusicPopularCulture

The Rest is Noise (3)–Webern, Schoenberg, Mahler

So onward this week into the music of Schoenberg and Webern. And you know what? It’s not only interesting—it’s also fun. We expected to find the music challenging, and it is. We expected to learn something about why it’s considered important, and that we’ve done. What we didn’t expect was to actually, you know, like the music—but we do. Will wonders never cease? Schoenberg is great—in addition to everything else, he’s got a wicked sense of humor. Early Webern is incredibly melodic—they both are, in fact. It’s just that, especially with Schoenberg, you initially feel disoriented because there are no long themes to anchor you. It’s all bursts and loops. The kinds of temporal patterns that you normally use to ground the musical experience? They mess with it—in fact, they remove it almost entirely. And it’s great fun.

Let’s start with Wednesday’s concert, which was the London Philharmonic, under the direction of Mark Elder, doing Webern’s Im Sommerwind, followed by Five Orchestral Pieces (Opus 16) by Schoenberg, which was then followed by Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The Webern was quite lovely—a gentle, pastoral piece with little in the way of an overall theme, but an expressive mood punctuated by occasional burst of light. This was composed in 1904, before Webern became Schoenberg’s student, but while he was still incorporating his discovery of Mahler. This is not the short, abrupt Webern of his later career. This is an expansive, expressionistic, almost opulent piece that Webern, actually, never heard performed during his lifetime—it wasn’t premiered until the 1960s, when it was rediscovered. Webern seems to have described it as an “orchestral idyll,” and that’s about right. It’s a tone poem, characteristic of the period. It’s the lightness of touch and texture that I found beguiling, though—it’s expressionistic, but not even close to the kind of loud, brassy orchestration that characterizes much of the period, including Strauss and (particularly) Mahler.

This was followed by the Schoenberg, which was, I have to say, great. As I mentioned above, I went into this sort of resigned to learn something, but I had no feelings one way or the other about what I might find enjoyable. But Schoenberg has surprise me. I haven’t heard anything by him yet that I haven’t liked—in fact, I’ve ordered both pieces, the Chamber Symphony, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, from Amazon already. I hadn’t really expected to want to hear them again—but I do. Maybe they’re just programming Schoenberg for people who don’t like Schoenberg, that sort of thing—but it’s working. The Five Orchestral Pieces are just that—five short pieces, all short—the entire works takes about 16 minutes. These are extremely expressionistic—there’s virtually no structure, no architecture to the work. It’s all mood, short bursts of line, what Schoenberg called “total chromaticism.” We’re not technically interested here in tonality, but it emerges anyway—you take this music and mentally structure it somehow. That’s how it makes sense. This could only have been composed in Vienna, obviously—Schoenberg is deliberately delving into his own musical unconscious here, as he had earlier in some of his more radical piano pieces, capturing bits here and there. It’s the kind of work where memory seems to intrude constantly. It’s all musical thoughts, many of them apparently random, but that’s just the impression you take away. It’s clearly much more structured than that, and it works wonderfully.

That was the first half—then the Mahler. Schoenberg and Webern (and Berg) all worshiped Mahler, so it was fitting to include him in these programs. But I’m not sure that this is the Mahler piece I would have chosen for this sort of concert, although the rather depressing theme of the piece fit. Mahler started writing it in 1908, the year after the death of his daughter, his resignation from conducting in Vienna after years of dealing with Austria’s increasingly vocal anti-semitism, and his first year as a conductor in New York—and after learning that his own heart was irreparably damaged. (It would kill him three years later.) The somber tones of the work seem to fly in the face of what has gone before—the bonhomie of the drunkard (who sings twice) seems forced, and the final section—the Farewell (Das Abschied)—is one of the most desolate in music. It’s six songs strung together, and Mahler, who normally composed in a fury of activity, took his time here, knitting things together gradually. It’s a long piece, of course. Well, all of Mahler is long, but some pieces seem longer than others. Mahler at the time was apparently influenced by a volume of ancient Chinese poetry. Of all of Mahler’s symphonies, this is the work where he attempted to integrate voice and orchestra most completely.

So overall, a somber piece. Well performed, I must say, with perfectly capable solos by mezzo Lilli Paaskivi and tenor Paul Groves. If I were programming, I would have chosen the fourth symphony, which does have a quite lovely soprano accompaniment in its final movement. But the organizers and programmers here apparently decided that somber was the way to go, and it pretty much worked that way. By the end of Mahler’s life the music world was changing rapidly. The romanticism inherent in Mahler’s final years was rapidly making way to radically new musical style—that was already clear with Schoenberg’s work, including the Five Orchestral Pieces, which were first performed in 1909—the year after Mahler started work on Das Lied, and two years before Das Lied actually was performed. It’s not clear to me how much of a summing up Mahler considered this work to be—he did complete another symphony (the 9th) before his death, and started work on another one. But still, this has the feel of a valedictory piece, and the programmers obviously intended this to be perceived as the “end of an era” piece to be contrasted with what was coming along.

Just how radical was to have been demonstrated by Thursday’s concert, Air from Another Planet, featuring Schoenberg’s 4 Songs (Opus 2), Alma Mahler’s 4 Songs, and 7 Early Songs by Berg, all followed by Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, with soprano soloist Barbara Hannigan accompanying the Quatuor Diotima string quartet. Which we missed! Because we both had sudden drippy colds and didn’t feel like ruining everyone else’s evening by sneezing and honking throughout. But we already have a feel for this, because the pieces we’ve heard already by Schoenberg (including the piano pieces from the weekend concert) were all composed around this time as well—the Chamber Symphony (the first one, of two) in 1907, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, as said, in 1909, and the piano pieces in 1909 and 1911. Clearly a time of turbulence, for Mahler and Schoenberg to be composing what they were composing at around the same time. And it’s important to understand, I suppose, what Schoenberg was actually doing—he was trying to take the romanticism that he loved—from Strauss, from Brahms, from Mahler—and extend it as far as it could go. His later decision to pursue atonality—intimated throughout all the pieces we have heard thus far—resulted from his decision that he couldn’t take it further, there was nowhere else to go. Mahler clearly would not have agreed—nor, for that matter, would have Sibelius, who comes along next month—but you can see why Schoenberg made that decision. One wonders, though, what Schoenberg thought of Sibelius’s 6th Symphony?

And so we leave Vienna behind—but not really. Vienna pervades the century, as we’ll see. Next up—nationalism, starting with Elgar in England on Saturday, but then back to Webern next week to finish off the month. Well, I’ve been converted to Schoenberg—maybe I’ll be converted to Elgar as well. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. I have to say that South Bank keeps putting together a bang-up set of events to surround the music—here’s the schedule of events for the February weekend. The days are just packed!

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